Jason Daniels / Pagoda Software, PDS, Hi-Tec Software
Added on April 5th, 2010 (6783 views)

Hello and welcome! Please introduce yourself to anyone who may not know you.
Wow! This is like therapy for computer nerds! OK, here we go... Hello, my name is Jason Daniels and I used to write computer games for the Commodore 64 – but I'm okay now. Just kidding! Actually, the urge never leaves you, even if you haven't done it for decades there's still that little voice in your head saying "you need to code, you want it, you want it!!"

How did you first get started with computers in general and the C64 in particular?
My first computer was an Acorn Atom around 1979/80, I think. I didn't do that much with it, just typed in crappy little BASIC programs. I did try to write a text adventure, but 4K of RAM has a way of letting you know pretty quick that it's time to move on to bigger things. I then, somehow, managed to convince my grandparents into spending over 400 on a 48K Atari 800 for me. In the early 80's, 400 would probably have bought you a quite nice second-hand sports car, so it was a huge outlay for them. The Atari 800 is still one of my all-time favourite computers! In fact, I have just bought one off of eBay. This machine was a huge advance from the Atom and it inspired me to start learning Assembler and how to program the machine properly. I bought a book called De Re Atari which was a standard for serious Atari coders, and so began my love affair with the intricacies of machine architecture.

I don't remember exactly when or even why I traded my Atari 800 in for the Commodore 64, but it happened. I think maybe that the C64 was becoming a more popular machine and, technically, it does have the edge over the Atari 8-bit machines. I was probably more impressed by the software being produced for it. Fortunately both machines are based on the 6502 CPU, so the transition wasn't too difficult.

Tell us how your career in games started. Did you submit sample work to various games companies in order to procure jobs, or did jobs come to you?
I started a small software house with me best mate Tom Lanigan called Pagoda Software ("House of Creation" – what can I say, we were young and a bit full of ourselves). We got a bank loan, an industrial unit, some equipment and just gave it a try. We would peddle our finished (or in the case of our first game, AutoGuard, unfinished) games around the various publishers looking for a deal. A lot of the time, we found they just wanted to head-hunt us to be in-house staff, which was flattering but not what we wanted.

What attracted you to the C64 as a development platform? In your opinion, was it as special as we like to think it was?
As I mentioned above, I think it was simply that it was becoming one of the most popular platforms in the UK (along with the Spectrum), and the games being produced for it were very impressive. Plus I had already had experience programming the 6502 on the Atari 800. So, in honesty, it was mainly a career decision.

What C64 games did you work on? Please be as detailed as possible.
With Pagoda Software: AutoGuard (never finished or released), Video Classics (Silverbird. We originally called this game BLIP!, hence the title screen), and finally Die! Alien Slime (Mastertronic). Published through Commodore Disk User magazine (all my own work): New York Crisis. With Hi-Tec Software (as the C64 in-house coder): Blazing Thunder.

What companies did you work for, either in-house or freelance, and in what capacity?
Pagoda Software started in mid-1985 and lasted until early 1989. The division of labour within Pagoda was usually that I came up with the initial game concepts and early designs which Tom and I would then develop. I wrote all the code and Tom did all the graphics, music and sound effects.

After Pagoda ceased trading, I spent a couple of months working for PDS Ltd. (Yes, *the* PDS Ltd. who developed and sold the Programmers Development System) as a programmer working on the development system for the Konix Multisystem. This was a very advanced games console for it's time that unfortunately never saw the light of day.

At the end of 1989, whilst doing various business computing contract jobs, I decided to have a crack at creating a whole game by myself. The result was a game called New York Crisis which, despite its relatively crude graphics, was not a bad little action strategy game. In fact, I would say it was a very early example of what would later be known as real-time strategy games. It was available by mail order through Commodore Disk User magazine who never paid me as they went into receivership shortly afterwards (I don't think there was a link between this happening and my game!). Finding a copy of this game is therefore near impossible. I don't even think I have a copy myself anymore. If anybody out there does have a copy, please get in touch.

In mid-1990, I got an in-house programmer job with Hi-Tec Software Ltd. in Sheffield. I worked on the C64 version of one game, Blazing Thunder, which was not much of a game in the design department, but I was quite proud of some of the coding I did for it. I left after that game was finished. That was the last time I did any coding professionally. Blimey! That was 20 years ago! What happened to the last two decades?!

Describe a typical day for you in front of the computer.
Coffee, cheese toasties, reference books, intense concentration! The occasional day-trip to the video arcades at Southend-on-sea.

When you were assigned to a game, how much time did you usually have to complete your work?
With Pagoda we at first took our sweet time. We spent 18 months developing our first title AutoGuard before shelving it. Video Classics (or BLIP! as we called it), we wrote from scratch in two and a half weeks. Die! Alien Slime took about six or seven months. New York Crisis I wrote between contract jobs over about six months. Blazing Thunder was four months of intense misery after which I was totally fried and close to a nervous breakdown (probably why I stopped programming altogether after that).

What tools, development kits, etc. did you use, and did you create any yourself to fulfil a need?
With Pagoda Software, we started with BASIC Lightening (on tape!), then Machine Lightening (on disk) using C64's/C128's/C128D's. Eventually, we took the plunge and bought a PDS (Programmers Development System) which was *the* professional development system for the C64. It required a PC in which you installed a proprietary interface card to which was connected an interface cable that connected to the expansion port of your target system, in this case a C64. A small download program would then be loaded into your target computer. With this setup, you developed your code on the PC and then downloaded it to the C64 where you could run it. It was a very sophisticated system that worked very well. I still have mine and I am going to try and get it running again in the near future. New York Crisis was also developed on my PDS. Blazing Thunder was developed on Hi-Tec's own system which linked an Atari ST to the C64. I don't remember much about it though, I'm afraid.

Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
Yes, AutoGuard. Even though this game was never finished, and hence never released, it was I believe the most significant piece of work that we did. I think Tom would agree with that. It was the first time we had tried to design and code a fully-fledged commercial game, and rather than starting with something relatively quick and easy, we really did throw ourselves in at the deep-end by spending a year and a half working on a groundbreaking game that looked like no other title I've ever seen on the C64.

I created my own custom graphical environment called the Bit-Map Graphic System (or BMGS), for which I wrote two utility programs which would allow the graphic artist to create background screens using this new system. The utility programs were called the Object Designer and the Screen Designer. The user would use the Object Designer to create a library of graphical objects which could be saved to disk. These libraries would then be loaded into the Screen Designer and arranged on screens to create an entire gaming environment.

To give you an idea of how BMGS functioned in AutoGuard, imagine screens of full-colour bit-mapped graphic objects displayed in forced perspective 3D. These objects act in a truly 3D manner allowing the beautifully detailed full-colour sprites Tom designed to move around them in a convincing way. To make a comparison, The Last Ninja had gorgeous 3D forced perspective environments, but the characters were kept pretty strictly on a path going through this 3D landscape. There's no real interaction with the 3D looking objects that make up a screen. With AutoGuard, you could move in front of, around, and behind any on-screen object and the character sprites (hero and bad guys) would be displayed in the correct manner either totally visible, partially obscured, or totally obscured (and every step in-between). AutoGuard had other advanced features as well; an amazing title screen picture that is nothing short of a C64 work of art (nice one Tom), a fully animated menu section in which you can build your own AutoGuard robot for use in the main game, a sub-game that was both a fun challenge and, again, graphically staggering on the C64. I know that I am blowing a pretty big trumpet here, but I believe that the graphics system I created for AutoGuard and the work we did on the game really pushed the limits of what the C64 was capable of.

Which game are you most proud of, which was the most fun to do, which became a real challenge, and which ended up giving you the biggest headache?
I am proud of all of them in one way or another. AutoGuard was an unfinished masterpiece, IMHO. Video Classics was a hell of an achievement considering it was two and a half weeks from concept to finished game. Die! Alien Slime was a full-price quality game that got released as a budget game and really deserved more recognition, again IMHO. New York Crisis was very different from any other C64 game, and though it's execution was a little crude, its game play was unique and very challenging. Even Blazing Thunder which frankly very much deserved its budget status, contained some of the best coding I've ever done.

If you had the chance to edit your CV of past games, which ones would you add, edit or remove?
I wish we had finished AutoGuard. However, that may still happen! Tom and I recently did a bit of archaeology and unearthed most of the original AutoGuard material, including all the printouts of my code, working copies of the BMGS utilities, a working and finished copy of the AutoGuard Menu Section, and a working but incomplete version of the AutoGuard main game. Unfortunately, all my PDS files seem to be lost, but if I can get my PDS back up and running, then I may be able to re-code AutoGuard from scratch using my notes and maybe even finish it (or at the very least have a working demo version). We recorded some of the various parts of the game we had found on DVD, and I am considering putting together a mini-documentary about Pagoda Software in general and AutoGuard in particular. This documentary would then be released onto the Internet. In the meantime, we may be able to release a few screenshots or short videos of AutoGuard as a taster. Watch this space and/or my website: www.jasondaniels.co.uk.

Are there any particular games you would have liked to have worked on or converted from arcade?
Not really. I preferred coming up with concepts for the games myself.

Did you get much of a chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
During the Pagoda Software days, we probably spent far too much time playing games rather than getting on with our own. My personal favourites on the C64 were (in no particular order) Wizball, Scarabeus, Bruce Lee, Impossible Mission, and Spy vs Spy. There were lots more, but I don't really remember them.

What games did you feel were appalling and you could have done better, given the chance?
No, not as far as I can remember.

Was there a particular programmer, artist and/or musician who influenced you and possibly inspired some of your own work, or did inspiration come from somewhere else?
I would have to say that, by far, the most significant games designers to influence us (by us, I mean myself and Tom as Pagoda Software), were the Sensible Software guys (Chris Yates and Jon Hare). And when I say influence, I mean we wanted to be better than them. To us, they were a kind of aspiration-al model. They were very creative. They were technically ahead of pretty much everybody else, and they were successful. Our desire to emulate their success and to better their technical prowess was a big motivation to us. Obviously, we never achieved even a fraction of their success, but I think technically we could have given them a run for their money. Who knows, if AutoGuard had been finished and released it might have been a different story.

Please share some memories from the old days! (Like something a colleague did or said, your time on the demo scene, crackers stealing development disks, going to computer shows, etc.).
I remember when Tom and I went to see Gary Bracey at Ocean to show him our unfinished version of AutoGuard, I managed to make a great early impression by somehow grounding myself on the metal leg of the table on which sat the C64 I was currently loading the game into. This had the dual effect of resetting the C64 and causing me to yelp in surprise! Fortunately, I think we managed to restore a bit of credibility once the game had loaded. After watching the demonstration, Mr. Bracey told us in no uncertain terms that AutoGuard was the most technically advanced game he had ever seen on the Commodore 64, but the bugger wouldn't offer us a deal until we had finished it. Unfortunately, the games' long development time had drained all our resources and we were broke and getting a little desperate.

We knew that AutoGuard would probably take months to finish, so we decided to take the rather bold step of shelving AutoGuard and writing a quick and commercial game from scratch in order to generate some income. That game was BLIP! Video Classics, the game that caused a thousand headaches! Actually, Video Classics was critically derided at the time, but we feel a lot of people missed the point of that game. I mean, how do you update a game like Pong to have the same game play but be more challenging (without just making it faster, which would be daft)? What we did was give you Pong but in an environment that would give you a headache after about five minutes; the disorientating backgrounds and pounding, incessant music were a core part of the new game play. Here's a suggestion: get some mates around, all get nicely squiffy and then play Video Classics. The challenge is to see who can hold off puking the longest!

What made you eventually stop creating games for the C64?
The 8-bit machines were on their way out (commercially speaking), and the 16-bit machines were taking over. I did intend to learn to program the Amiga, but after buying all the Amiga ROM Kernel manuals and hardware manuals, I'm sitting there staring at what looks like a large stack of telephone directories and thinking to myself: "you have got to be f*****g kidding!!" My brain was a bit fried by that point (see previous answers), so I just could not face learning a new and far more complex machine. I decided to do something easier, so I went into management for a few years.

What are you up to these days?
I have been training as a Pro Tools operator and have recently qualified. I am now the only certificated Pro Tools operator registered in Wales! By the way, Pro Tools is the industry standard DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) used in most recording studios and post-production houses. I've always loved music. In fact, when I was young, it was a toss-up as to whether I would go into music or computers. Even though I chose computers, I still maintained an interest in music and recording.

Thank you for helping us preserve an important part of computer and gaming history! Do you have any parting comments with which to leave a final impression on our readers? Feel free to greet anyone you know.
That era of home computers, the C64 and other 8-bit machines, was unique and sadly fleeting (it can be mostly encapsulated within the 1980's). That was a time when the popularity of home computers – and the relative low cost of them – made it possible for one or two self-taught individuals to sit at home and design and code a complete game that could then possibly go on to sell tens of thousands of copies. The machine architecture then was simple enough (relatively) that it was possible for one coder to understand the computer hardware completely and really push the machine to its technical limits. This all changed with the advent of the 16-bit machines and beyond; the machines and the games were getting too sophisticated for one or two people to develop (I know it did still happen at first, but it was the exception rather than the rule and it didn't last long). This trend continued until now when most games are mammoth projects requiring large teams of coders, artists, designers, etc. with budgets matching those of movies. Hence the video games industry is now totally in the purview of corporations and the bedroom games coder is well and truly dead (in any serious commercial sense anyway). It's a shame because that era produced some of the finest games designers and coders I think we will ever see! And many of the games produced were just pure, streamlined playability. So, it's right and good that groups like this continue to celebrate these machines and the software that was produced for them. Thank you, good night and Game On!

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